I pulled “American Dirt” off a display largely because of a blurb on the cover from bestselling author Don Winslow that called it “A ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our times.” That was a great story and a great movie about a period and a location in American history that I enjoy studying, so Winslow’s description caught my attention, and I decided to give “American Dirt” a try. Many have already read the book, as a recent statistic published by the library showed it was the fourth-most read fiction book in our library in 2020. Turns out there are many people who could recommend this book to those who haven’t already read it.
Lydia is the owner of a small, local bookstore in Acapulco, Mexico. Her husband, Sebastian, is a local journalist who has researched and written an article about the man behind the ruling drug cartel in Acapulco. He has published similar articles in the past, and he and Lydia are aware of the dangers. Finally, Sebastian goes too far, and the cartel murders their entire extended family at a family gathering. Only Lydia and her eight-year-old son, Luca, survive the attack. At this point, I’m thinking about Winslow’s quote, and not seeing the connection. Keep reading? I do.
Lydia knows that no one in Acapulco can be trusted. The cartel has burrowed deep into the local institutions, including hospitals, police and government agencies, with a network beyond into all of Mexico, so she and Luca are on the run. Lydia decides the only possible way to camouflage herself from the cartel is to take the migrants’ trail to the United States border, and from there on to Denver, Colorado, where a distant relative settled years ago. Now it does begin to parallel “The Grapes of Wrath.” A personal event has created the need to join a mass migration to a place where they will not be universally welcomed, like the Okies at the California border.
Just as “The Grapes of Wrath” was a fictional story within a historic event, so is “American Dirt.” In the story, one migrant trying to re-enter the U.S. speaks of Arivaca, Arizona, as a hateful place to avoid. Partly out of curiosity and partly out of an interest to check the factual content of the book, I researched Arivaca and found plenty of truth in author Jeanine Cummins’ use of the town. Arivaca, Arizona, a town of less than 700 people, earned a reputation with migrants as a place to avoid when it became a frequent destination for anti-immigrant militant groups using this small town as a gathering place to discourage migrants from entering the United States and encourage the building of a national border wall. In 2009, anti-immigrant vigilantes invaded the home of a family in Arivaca, claiming they were searching for migrants living in the country illegally, when in fact they were hoping to find drugs and drug money to finance the Minutemen American Defense. They killed a father and daughter and nearly killed the mother. Incidents like this put Arivaca on the migrants’ map as a place to be avoided. (ABC News, 2011)
Interestingly to me, Cummins also uses Arivaca within her story to introduce some philosophical wisdom by relating Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. For every action, there is a response. Likewise, paraphrasing Cummins from her text, for every hateful act, there is the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.
“American Dirt” has much to offer on so many levels, especially insight into the sweeping dangers migrants face in just making it to the Unites States border. For those who study American history, the historical parallel of the Okies is unmistakable. All of that stirred in to a story that has the suspense of running from the long reach of a drug cartel and the human relationships built under the stresses of people on the move for a better life in the United States.
As has often been said, the best fiction carries the ring of truth. “American Dirt” carries the ring of truth, from Central America all the way to Arivaca, Arizona. If you enjoy reading historical fiction, in addition to reflecting on a great American novel, with “American Dirt” you will engage in a story that is history in the making on our southern border.
Bryan McBride is an adult services librarian at Manhattan Public Library.